Multiplying fish to feed the multitudes
A miraculously simple technology from Israel makes it possible to grow fish anywhere - even in the desert. While governments are looking to the sea as a possible solution toward easing world hunger, many of the largest fisheries are in danger of collapse, due to overfishing. A new fish-growing technology developed by Israeli startup GFA (Grow Fish Anywhere) Advanced Systems is well on the way to ensuring that there will be plenty of fish to feed the multitudes. GFA has developed an on-land environment where fish can be raised, in water that doesn't need to be exchanged or treated chemically.
The population explosion continues, with the UN estimating that there will be between eight and 10.5 billion people in the world by 2040. Demographers are concerned that existing food sources won't meet the challenge. In many parts of the world people lack sufficient protein, and recent bad weather, whether due to global warming or other factors, has translated into even less food to go around. On paper, salt-water fish would appear to be a delicious, nutritious solution, requiring minimal expenditure of labor, land and money, unlike other forms of animal protein.
But plans to rely on fish to feed growing populations carry their own risk, according to GFA Advanced Systems CEO Dotan Bar-Noy. "Overfishing is a much bigger problem than people realize, and in a few years, many species of salt water fish are simply going to disappear if something isn't done," he warns. Indeed, many countries have begun limiting commercial fishing off their coasts for specific species for fear that overfishing could decimate them.
Choking in waste
The alternative, says Bar-Noy, has been the development of "fish farms" - penned areas, usually set up in harbors and off the coasts of cities, where fish are raised in a controlled environment. They have been around for years, enabling growers to set up controlled conditions that can ensure a specific yield of fish, allowing them to guarantee delivery without worrying about dwindling supplies in the ocean, pollution or inclement weather.
But these farms have their own problems. While they enhance the conservation of fish in the sea, fish farms are often considered environmental hazards because of the waste generated by the fish. Most fish farms are located adjacent to a body of water and circulate fish waste out of the tanks by dumping it into the sea. Like other creatures, fish cannot live in an environment where they are choked by their own waste.
At sea, the waste is dissipated over a wide area. On a fish farm, the waste-laden tank water is exchanged for "fresh" seawater. The result is that the water nearby the tank - with its now high concentration of nitrogen and other elements found in fish waste - becomes uninhabitable for the fish that swim there.
People living or working nearby are liable to be confronted by the sight of dead fish that have been "poisoned" by the high concentration of nitrogen and nutrients in their water. According to Bar-Noy, the problem is so serious that despite being the only technologically feasible solution to overfishing to date, fish farms are banned in many places.
Prior to the GFA solution, purification systems were based on electrical treatment systems, which are expensive to install and run, and not all that effective, says Bar-Noy. "Even when they work, the electrical purification systems are too expensive, and fish produced with those systems will cost far more than fish from the sea."
Growing fish on land
GFA provides the only solution that eliminates the environmental problems associated with fish farming. Based on the work of Israeli scientist Dr. Yossi Tal and Hebrew University professor Jaap van Rijn - inventor of the system - GFA has developed an on-land environment where fish can be raised, and where the water doesn't have to be exchanged or chemically treated.
Tanks using the system are filled with water and fish and then the GFA microbes are added. These microbes treat the nitrogen and organic waste byproducts of fish production right in the tank. No water is discharged at all; in fact the only fluid exchange is the addition of water to replenish that which is lost through evaporation.
"It's the most efficient fish-growing system possible," asserts Bar-Noy. "There is no pollution, and there is no need to fish at sea. Just set up tanks with GFA technology anywhere in the world, and harvest the fish when you're ready to go to market. We call this a zero-discharge system. We use biological filters and specially developed bacteria to treat the water the fish are growing in, without wasting anything. The system can be set up to raise salt-water fish anywhere in the world - even in the desert, thousands of miles from the ocean," Bar-Noy declares.
The bacteria used by GFA's system are cheap and easy to produce, so any initial costs for purchasing a system are more than offset by the savings realized in not having to clean tanks. This means that GFA-raised fish are fully competitive pricewise with fish from the sea, or from "traditional" fish farms, says Bar-Noy. And according to Bar-Noy, GFA fish are tastier. "Fish from the sea are subject to the natural weather cycles of cold and heat, while farmed fish can be raised at a constant, ideal temperature. GFA fish have an even greater advantage, since the water they grow in is always fresh, making the fish taste better than fish from other sources."
GFA's fish-raising systems have already been set up in several locations in Israel, and the company operates a purification facility in upstate New York, which has been functioning since 2009. The largest facility using GFA technology, it produced about 100 tons of fish last year - mostly salt-water fish like sea bream, bass and tilapia. GFA is now working on the third generation of its purification system.
Biotech advances help realize the dream
The company was formed in 2008, but the technology behind it has been under development for the past 20 years. "While the ideas were there for awhile, the only viable purification techniques were based on electrical devices. It was only with the rise of biotechnology techniques that we were able to develop the bacteria that enable us to do the purification cheaply," Bar-Noy explains.
The resulting system enables high-capacity fish production - as much as 100 kg of fish per cubic meter of water (220 pounds of fish per 35 cubic feet) - along with the ability to grow fish in any environment. Fish farms can be set up anywhere - including in large cities, where the fish can be brought to market the same day they're harvested, saving transportation time and costs.
Dutch private equity fund Linnaeus Capital Partners recently injected NIS 18 million (about $126,000) into the company. Previously GFA had raised money from several angels. The latest cash injection will go to fund a number of projects, including expanding the New York facility and further refining the technology.
"As populations grow, more countries are looking to fish as sources of protein, but overfishing threatens to destroy that dream," says Bar-Noy. "With our system, fish can be grown anywhere - even in the desert - with minimal environmental impact. This is about more than just growing fish. This could help feed millions."